The Hardik Patel Story: The ‘Fast’ Way to Political Relevance
Hardik’s new demand for farm loan waivers sounds like he is leaning towards the opposition Congress in Gujarat.
There’s a word in Gujarati that one of Hardik Patel’s detractors used to describe his politics. Sagvadiyo dharam. The kind of politics where anything goes, where everything and its opposite is used at the same time as long as it serves a purpose. It’s like everything else in Gujarat – full of contradictions. Like the food truck in the park opposite Ahmedabad’s Karnavati Club run by a sardar who was raised in Gujarat. That offers the ‘Group Paratha’ - a new age masala mix of ingredients that seem to contradict each other but in Gujarat turn into a perfect marriage – onion, paneer bhurji, paan and cheese. Sagvadiyo.
It’s picture perfect then that the rising star on the political landscape of Gujarat had adopted exactly this idiom to catapult himself to centrestage. Fasting in front of a banner of political leaders from the Left to the Right, all in the same frame.
Masala Mix of Contradictions
Three years ago, when Hardik Patel kicked up a political storm demanding reservations in jobs and education for Patidars or the community of Patels, he did it in front of a poster of the tallest Patel leader - Sardar Patel. Now, he fasts in front of a Sagvadiyo masala mix of leaders cutting across ideologies. The poster behind him has the entire pantheon from Gandhi and Patel to Bhagat Singh, Shivaji and Ambedkar.
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Even the nature of demands Hardik is making is full of contradictions. The Patels are the richest, most landed and powerful community in Gujarat. The previous chief minister and current deputy chief Minister are Patels. 44 of the 183 MLAs or a quarter of the elected representatives in the Assembly are Patels, even though they account for only an eighth or 12% of the population.
If any community is in a position of comfort in Gujarat, it is the Patels. But in the last hundred years, many Patels sat on their land and laurels and did not invest much in educating their next of kin. So now there is a large group of middling Patels who find themselves unable to compete with other communities in competitive exams.
So it would be nice, wouldn’t it, to lean on a quota? To use the muscle power the group has, by virtue of being loyal supporters of the BJP, to demand reservations or else threaten to withdraw support en masse.
Now, there is a mountain of contradictions to feed off. To start with, Hardik’s detractors – people who have left his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) or group of patidars agitating for a quota say, point at Hardik’s surroundings. He is fasting in a large farmhouse in an affluent part of Ahmedabad. He recently had his sister married with a big opulent splash.
Where did this money come from, his critics ask; since Hardik isn’t earning anything and his father who is no longer working had a modest business making pumps for borewells. They also point to the opportunistic politics that shines through in the changed demands of the Patidars under Hardik.
Three years ago, they asked for quotas and in the agitation and ensuing violence, 14 people were killed. Now, they’ve added an additional demand – loan waivers for farmers. This sounds like Hardik is leaning increasingly towards the opposition party in the state – the Congress.
If they say their enemy number one is the ruling party, the BJP, then they have to draw on political support from the opposition.
Patel Leaning Towards Congress?
And there lies the rub. The Congress party’s main vote bank consists of people from the OBCs or Other Backward Classes quota. Supporting an agitation for quotas for another group takes away from the Congress vote base.
So Hardik needed to make his demands sound more palatable to Congress-walas by adding a new demand to his list – loan waivers for farmers.
Hardik’s supporters say it isn’t that simple.
“90 percent of the Patidars (or Patels) are farmers,” says PAAS leader Geeta Patel Vastral. So it makes sense to add to the list of demands as the group grows.
In the state elections that took place in 2017, PAAS did tacitly support the Congress, said another leader – Dinesh Bhambaniya.
They said they would put our demand for quotas in their manifesto but then they didn’t. So we are not directly talking to them.Dinesh Bhambaniya
There is some give and take clearly as both PAAS and the Congress seem to be using Hardik’s fast and the surround sound to gauge who can get what from whom.
So far, PAAS has muscles to flex. It made a considerable dent in the BJP’s vote base in the last three years, causing the biggest political earthquake in the state in two decades and the biggest headache for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine.
The support from Patels across the state is growing and the current agitation has had a salutary effect on the few that were wavering. This is a dog-eat-dog political world and who doesn’t want quotas if they can be had?
As far as Hardik’s farmhouse is concerned, Hardik’s spokesperson Manoj Panara says it’s rented for 11,000 rupees a month and that is paid by some of Hardik’s rich Patidar supporters. They also pitched in to the cost of their leader’s sister’s wedding.
The real question behind Hardik’s test of political strength via his fast, now on day eleven, is how much this will alter the politics of Gujarat and the ego of its chief architects at the centre – Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah.
The answer to that is as interesting and layered as the ‘Group Paratha’ with paan and cheese. A good indicator was the state elections that took place in December 2017. The Patidars voted for the BJP in the city of Surat, which was ground zero for Hardik Patel’s agitations. But elsewhere in Gujarat, they swung the other way, particularly in rural areas in the north and centre – in districts like Mehsana and Rajkot. This forced BJP President Amit Shah to do some quick social re-engineering, once he figured that the party’s support base of Patidars were split and many were going against them.
The BJP did door to door campaigns amongst the OBCs which formed bulk of the opposition Congress’ support base.
The BJP campaigners told them not to vote for the Congress. That the Congress is supporting the Patidars and that would take away the OBC quotas. Posters were circulated saying – Hardik plus Congress equals death for the OBC quotas. And many political observers say the math worked.
The BJP made up its numbers of those lost to the Patidar agitation by weaning away OBCs from the Congress. It was a close call and the Congress won more seats than the BJP across rural Gujarat. The urban voters stuck to the BJP allowing it to win the overall numbers in the election.
And now the general election of 2019 looms ahead. If Hardik Patel’s fast can make a further dent and pull away more voters from the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls, he stands a good chance of being the main face of the opposition to the BJP when Gujarat votes again in 2022. It’s a long way away but the fast is the roadmap, the gauge, the thali from which many new things will emerge. New appetites created. New paan and cheese mixes in the pan. Sagvadiyo.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ forthcoming from Context/Westland in November 2018. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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